Christopher Johnson: First off, thank you very much for taking time out to do this interview. Most of the people that we support are doing film, TV or game creation, and you’re in the live performance arena. Before we get into the specifics of that, I wanted to just start out with what your background is, and how you came to content creation and media, generally.
Craig Countryman: Yeah. The easy answer is that I just kind of fell into it, which sounds kind of strange. I came to Nashville to go to college and thought I wanted to be a musician and play in a band. I wanted to pursue that whole playing-music-for-a-living thing and doing the crazy lifestyle of touring and all of that stuff.
I quickly realized two things. One: I am by far not the greatest musician in the world. And two: that I didn’t really want that lifestyle. Touring is not easy; in fact, it sounds glamorous because you get to travel all over the country and see all of these different places, but really you wake up in a different city. You see the inside of an arena or an amphitheater or someplace. You set everything up, and you do your thing. You might have some down-time in the afternoon, then you do the show, you load out, and you wake up in a different city. So it’s like everybody sees it as this glamorous thing, and it’s really a grind. It’s not a great lifestyle.
But like I said, when I moved down here I thought I was going to play music, and then got into recording and doing audio and all of that stuff. I spent a good chunk of time in college just living in a studio and recording bands and doing all of that. And right before my senior year of college I had an internship at a video production company. Based off of a friend that was like, hey there are some people that I think you’d like, and I think you’d enjoy all of this.
And actually, I burned my first video DVD in one of my post production audio classes because the audio program at my school had way more money than the video program – like tons more. We had one computer that ten of us basically huddled around to learn After Effects. Versus the audio department which had a brand new Mac Pro with a superdrive, and it was the very first DVD burner on campus. It was awesome. And it had DVD Studio Pro, but nobody knew how to use it. So in my post production audio class, the guy took five minutes of the TV show and he was like, “alright, this is the worst case situation. You’re mixing audio for TV, and you lose all of your files. You have to recreate everything.” So you have to rerecord, and he was like, “the trick is you have to mix it.” But we didn’t know how to do that. So I kind of learned how to do that, and kind of fell into video through audio.
So I had an internship at a production company and I started working on a lot of music videos and commercials and a handful of movies. And for a little period there, I thought I wanted to be a director of photography and deal more with lighting and being on set. But at the same time, I always liked editing and After Effects work and motion graphics, so I was kind of doing both. And really, the first couple of paid projects that I had out of college were doing After Effects work. We were actually building DVDs for churches’ worship services that had either quick tracks or audio tracks, and all of it was synced to musical scores. So the churches could either have their band play along with it, or they could use it as a standalone kind of worship thing. And that was basically animating the text and doing backgrounds and all of that.
So it’s kind of funny that through a few of buddies of mine that I met doing that and everything else, and a guy that I actually went to college with, I kind of fell into just the live performance side of it. Just one of those where it’s like, now that I’m out of college — and one of my professors in college actually worked for Moo TV, which is our sister company. And then I freelanced for a number of years doing that and Moo TV was one of the biggest companies that I freelanced for, or did more work for, I guess. And then in 2011, they wanted to get together and talk about an upcoming project. So we get together and I asked, “What’s the project?” They responded with, “Do you want a job?” I’m like, “Yeah, what’s the project?” And they said, “No, it’s a full-time job.” It was like, whoa, you’re going to pay me a salary? I’ve never been paid consistently ever in my life. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our second child so it was kind of a no brainer in terms of having a little bit more stability and not basically living the freelance lifestyle.
Christopher: You were like, you mean … you guys actually have a budget?
Craig: Yeah I was like, wait, you mean I’m going to get the same thing every month? I can actually have a legitimate budget for my personal finances for a change instead of just going, okay, how much money is coming in this month? Who do I need to call that hasn’t paid me yet? Who can I harass to try to get paid and all of that. So yeah, like I said, it was totally random. It was just some guy that I met that I kind of became friends with because we shared some office space in my freelance days. He’s the one guy that I got a call — the first time I ever did the tour content or the tour visual side of it was probably either for Brooks and Dunn or Brad Paisley, back in the early 2000s and it was one of the…
Christopher: I’m sorry, I couldn’t make that out. Who was the act?
Craig: It was either Brad Paisley or Brooks and Dunn. I can’t remember which one I actually did first. I want to say it was probably Brad Paisley because I — or no, was it Alan Jackson? I kind of got myself in a little bit of trouble because I started freelancing for Mood TV at the time and they were — Alan Jackson was one of their big clients and then he was going out on tour with Brooks and Dunn, and I got a call from some people out of town that were doing the content for Brooks and Dunn through a buddy of mine. And so I’m sitting there at rehearsals, working for two companies for the same tour, at the same time. And so they’re asking, are you double dipping? How is this working for you? I was like, well, I don’t really know. I’m a freelancer and I’m doing both of these jobs at the same time. I didn’t realize that you guys were going out on tour together. So yeah — but apparently it worked out okay, I guess.
Christopher: Yeah. So is most of the music that you guys cover, is it pretty much all country? Or do you do a mix of different music types?
Craig: It’s a mix. We get a lot of country just by being in Nashville, because there’s more of it here. But we’ve done all sorts of different kinds of music. We’re not really genre specific, so to speak.
Christopher: Yeah. And maybe what would be good in terms of the community, the post community, motion graphics and that whole works. Talking a little bit about how the actual show — like what — where it started in terms of, background, screens, lights; all of that, that you’re contributing to. Where it started and where it is today, where it’s come to.
Craig: Oh man. I was thinking about this actually the other day, and I’ve thought about it a few times over the course of my career. It’s like, what I’m doing now for a job wasn’t even a thing when I was a kid. It wasn’t even a remote thought in most people’s minds. Back when I was a kid growing up, moving lights and that stuff was still not necessarily easily accessible for all of the artists. It was the bigger acts that had the fancy lighting rigs and the lights that can move and change color and do all sorts of cool things. So it’s like — it wasn’t even a thought. I can’t even remember the first tour that I ever saw that carried video. I don’t remember any of them as a kid, and I still think to this day that my parents don’t really get quite what I do even though I’ve gotten them tickets to shows that I’ve worked on. The first tour I saw with video was the U2 Pop Art tour where they had a giant lemon and a huge, huge LED wall, for that time period. I kind of wish I knew more about it back then so I had more understanding of what actually went into it. Which is really funny because I ended up working with the guys that basically built all of the content for that show, later on in life.
Chris Young live show video still
Craig: Yeah, so I remember seeing that and being blown away. But even then, it wasn’t something that crossed my mind as a possibility for a career. Even since I got started in it in the early 2000s until now, it’s dramatically changed. Back in the early days, it was the larger, bigger artists that could afford to carry video. You basically have to be headlining an arena tour, or a larger tour, to be able to afford to carry projectors and the crew to go out with it. And now, it’s like, we do stuff for smaller, up and coming artists that have had one single, because they can afford the…
Christopher: Yeah, I was curious about the guys that help put together the — you said that it was the U2 Pop Art tour, right?
Christopher: What were their names and what did you work on them together on?
Craig: It was Mark Logue and Marcus Lyall, and I worked with them — I met them — well actually, I met Marcus on Brooks and Dunn. And then, I worked with him again on The Eagles and Bon Jovi and stuff for Paul McCartney as well.
Christopher: Got it.
Craig: So a little bit of background – Marcus Lyall is the guy that I know better of the two. I know Mark Logue somewhat, but Mark Logue has been around — I think he did stuff for the — what was it, the Zoo TV tour, as well as for U2, and some other stuff as well. But Marcus Lyall got his start working with The Chemical Brothers back before they were popular, in London, because he used to go to raves in high school. And they were DJ’ing the raves, so he saw a guy that was projecting some film imagery onto the wall at one of the raves and thought it looked cool. And went up and started talking to the guy, and the guy is like, yeah, do you want to do some stuff for the next time? And handed him a camera to go shoot some stuff and we’ll project it on the wall, during the next rave.
Christopher: It’s so interesting how friendship works in that regard. A friend of mine is connected with the main lighting guy for The Pixies, and the reason he had that job is because he grew up with those guys. It’s that simple. Same kind of really tight relationship, we’ve known you for 25 years, you’re it.
Craig: Yeah, and that’s the thing. I still look at Marcus Lyall as — he is one of my favorite creative directors and one of my favorite people that I’ve ever worked with. Just because you just kind of fall into it, in that regard. Something that he’s doing in high school with the London underground scene, of just going and hanging out at parties and raves and whatever and now, he just kind of falls into it. But he’s really, really good at what he does. Like, he’s one of the few guys that his style boards and his pitches are pretty much the final project. Like he kind of has it dialed in where, what he sees in his head and what the final product is is remarkably close. So many other times, there’s so many other iterations or changes or things that come up. But he just kind of got it dialed in, in a way.
Christopher: Yeah, it sounds like it. Yeah, so this would bring me up to — so I guess you started doing this full time basically in 2011 and where has it kind of come from there? What has changed in the work that you do and the shows that you put on, and maybe you could talk a little bit about the projects. Like this was a game changer or if there’s anything that stood out in your experience that you are using today.
Craig: The affordability of everything has kind of been the biggest game changer. Where it’s no longer accessible to a smaller group of people, it’s now — the creativity has changed with that as well. It’s so much easier to push the boundaries. We deal with a lot of weird layers. Even when we’re editing in Premiere Pro, we usually work within a Mac. Where it’s like, okay, we always try to work pixel for pixel. So if we’re working with whatever LED product we do, we figure out it’s 892 x 384 or whatever the pixel size is. But if you have multiple surfaces and they’re different LED products or they’re different pixel pitches, which means basically the distance between each pixel. To try to make the content look the same on all of that, you have to nominalize it and kind of work it to all within one pixel pitch, and then convert it when you export it. So if you have a line that goes from one screen to another screen, the size is the same. Because if you have different pixel pitches and if you have the same size line, when you put it on one surface, five pixels is actually six inches, versus five pixels is three inches. Does that make sense?
Christopher: Yeah. It’s called pixel pitch.
Craig: Pixel pitch and that’s basically what all LED products are based off of. So if you have a nine millimeter LED wall, basically every nine millimeters there’s a pixel. And there’s 20 million LED walls — and a lot of tours will mix that stuff. So you kind of have to compensate for that or build your content with that in mind.
We did stuff for Pentatonix, and this was probably in 2014. But we were working in 4K with seven different LED surfaces. And then we’re also running these like — they were basically like neon tubes that had RGB LEDs in them, so you could map video content to them as well. So that was another surface. So when you’re trying to edit or build content for that, you have a Mac and then you have like eight video layers in Premiere that you’re trying to edit and work with and watch. So sometimes it’s very time consuming because you’re constantly having to render stuff to preview, just to see what it’s going to look like.
So it’s definitely a little different than cutting a movie, or cutting a commercial. With a 30 second commercial spot you could get away with a couple of layers. And even with that you’re pretty much only having one video playing back at a time. Whereas with what we’re doing when we’re trying to build stuff, we’re working in weird sizes or raptures on top of having multiple layers with alpha channels, and trying to blend them all together. And you’re cropping and you’re scaling and you’re doing all of this, which will quickly bog down a computer. And that was a big reason why — because we were predominately Mac based for a number of years. But they couldn’t keep up, especially with the trash cans. Our one editor was working on one of the trash cans for the Pentatonix project, and he literally could not — like, it was awful. He was just struggling to do basic, simple edits, because he’s got one layer on top that’s basically a still image with an outfit channel. With all of these little holes cut in it for the different video screens. And then he’s got eight video layers underneath, all playing at the same time. And they’re all scaled and cropped, with color correction or maybe an effect on it or whatever. And at that point, you can really, really quickly bog down a workstation.
Andy Grammer concert backdrop video still
Christopher: So that brings us to probably 2015, the year when we first talked. But first, just so I’m clear, what is Pentatonix? Is that a band?
Craig: Yeah. They’re an acapella group. I’m trying to think — I feel like they got their start from the one TV show that was all vocal groups. They’re basically an all acapella group that mainly does pop covers and things like that.
Christopher: I have not heard of them, interesting,
Craig: Yeah, they’re really talented. Like in terms of just vocalists and their just sheer talent — I was kind of blown away working with them. I didn’t think they were going to be as good as they were.
That project and a few other ones was kind of like what was — at the time, I was still working on an old cheese grater tower, on the Mac side of things. And then the one guy, Andy Reuter, he was working for us — he had our first PC which didn’t come from you guys but I had built through another company. But it was working on projects like that and seeing just how underperforming the Mac was, it was like, we need to switch to something that can handle this. We need to have workstations that allow us to actually get work done. If you’re just trying to do an edit and it literally takes you 30 minutes to render out a couple minutes of video to look at it, it’s painfully, painfully slow and you’re never going to hit your deadline.
Christopher: Right on, yeah. And this might be — I’m sorry, go ahead.
Craig: That’s the other weird thing about this industry is that there are weird, hard deadlines. For example, when there’s a live show that’s been booked and tickets have been sold. When you’re dealing with an artist, obviously they’ll always change things during rehearsals or they’ll decide to change the arrangement of the song. They’ll decide to cut out this chorus and this verse and they’ll change the tempo, and oh yeah, the show is tomorrow. Sorry, they decided to make these changes last minute. And it’s like, okay. You have to scramble to get stuff done and that was kind of the big push. Just being in a lot of situations where it was like, this is so counterproductive and we’re having so much wasted time. We also lose creativity in that. When you can’t work the fee stuff, you don’t have the opportunity to explore other ideas or other options or try something new, because you’re just scrambling to get something out the door. If that makes sense.
Christopher: We’ve been working on messaging lately. Realizing our clients’ commitment required for creative excellence, there’s one big enemy usually in the room and it’s time.
Christopher: And the impact — well, it’s just like a threat, and it grows exponentially with underpowered hardware, which does affect project scope. It affects the capabilities of your team. But also the creative process itself, which is the main thing you don’t want it to impact, right?
Craig: Yeah. Oh yeah.
Christopher: So I think this is a really a good jumping off point to discuss this move of switching from Mac to PC hardware provider and finally to Mediaworkstations.net. There are two things that I’m thinking of. One is what your workflow was when you were working on a Mac, and how that’s changed. For example, if you’re using some new applications to support the workflow. And then also, the evolution of the hardware. Switching from the Mac to PC to Mediaworkstation. So I think first, it may be best to list your core tools. Like Premiere Pro which you’ve been talking about since we started. But what other tools are really important in your content creation for the shows?
Craig: Yeah. It greatly depends. I spend most of my time in After Effects. Just because of the flexibility and the robustness. I do really enjoy node-based compositors and things like that, to me, is a much better workflow overall. But considering a lot of what we do, I have to build templates and things because we’ll work in one mat to make sure that everything looks right, and we’ll also have to convert like the dead space between the screens on stage into a pixel count. We have to consider, for example, if the screens are ten feet apart and that equates to this number of pixels. So I need to put this here and this here in the mat, so I can put this behind it and have it be lined up correctly. Because that’s one of my biggest pet peeves that I notice when I go to shows that we haven’t done, that people don’t compensate for. So it’s like, you go and you see that line, or a line that goes across the whole screen or whatever, and you can tell that they basically just cut the image. And it doesn’t physically look right. Does that make — you know?
Craig: After Effects was always a very versatile kind of Swiss Army knife because I’ve been using it for a long time so I know it really well, and it’s really easy to automate some of the processes, be it scripting and some other stuff. And it will do renders where it’s like, okay I can build a template and have everybody or any artist that’s working on the project work on one mat. They deliver the files to me, and then I basically batch process a whole bunch of stuff in After Effects to get it prepared to actually get loaded on the media server and in the right way. Because the way the video processing side and the way the LED processing side works is a whole other beast, because you have to sometimes rotate stuff or cut stuff up into weird little slivers or chunks. So that way the LED processors are happy and they can see the LED with the correct information.
Christopher: As I understand it, you have to do that for children too when they’re growing up.
Craig: Yeah. Yes, I’ve tried to do that with mine. I don’t know if I’ve successfully done that or not. I guess I’ll find out in a few years and we’ll see how they turn out.
Christopher: No exactly — no, that’s really good, and the reason why I wanted to pause and focus on this for a bit is because so many people — they’re calling every week — they’re Mac users and they’re like “I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this. One more day. One more day. It’s on their mind every day. So what I also wanted to talk to you about is — in addition to After Effects, what it was like in terms of performance increase, going from the trash can to — what was the other company that you purchased from before us?
Craig: It was Colfax International. They mainly do computers for medical fields and computing nodes and all of that. They definitely don’t really understand the Adobe Creative Suite and the media production side of it. Like they’re definitely more on the scientific and research side of stuff. So that was one of the big things when I was doing research for the work station I bought from you guys when I talked to you, you had a lot of insight into that, because I had done a little bit of research and was kind of feeling a little overwhelmed because of the Adobe stuff. You were like, oh, well Premiere will work well with this, but After Effects won’t, and this graphics card with this. And on the Mac side of it, you’re really limited. Whatever one Nvidia video card they decide to support, and they’re going to ship you the machine with an ATI card because they’re on the ATI cycle. So you can’t get a card that will run the CUDA stuff. So you’re like, well, okay. I have to buy this computer. When I get it, then I have to spend another 2,000 dollars on another graphics card that I have to put in myself. That is more expensive than the PC version because it’s made for a Mac and it’s labeled Mac. And overall, it’s literally an amazing, night and day difference in terms of workflow and productivity for me. There was a little bit of hesitation because I hadn’t used Windows in a while, and I definitely was not a fan of a few versions they had out, the little bit that I did get a chance to use it. But it literally was — I wish I could put numbers to it to quantify the number of hours and days I’ve saved, probably even weeks or months, over the last couple of years, of having the workstation. Versus what I would have had — even if I had purchased a new trash can at the time, it still would have been night and day. Because we had one of the trash cans in our office, for a while up until recently, and we did a few benchmarks and a few other things and it wasn’t even remotely close. It wasn’t even really comparable in my mind, in terms of the productivity side of it.
Christopher: You think like four to six times faster or something like that?
Craig: Oh yeah, yeah. And then it was one of those where it was like, we didn’t necessarily do legit — like we didn’t do CineRender or anything like that. It was just like, hey man, here’s my project file. Would you mind exporting this in a QuickTime photo JPEG and a QuickTime animation. I get on my machine and it took me ten minutes and then the guy that had the trash can would be like, well, I stopped it at an hour and it was saying it still had an hour to go because he was letting it bake. It just wasn’t worth the time. So there were a few things like that where — just some real world experimentation of, hey man, I just did my render. The project is done and we have a few minutes; would you mind just throwing it on your machine, opening the project and just hitting export so that we could just kind of get a rough idea. And then it was literally that, like four to six or maybe slightly more, just in terms of the factoring.
Christopher: Yeah, that’s great and I think — like we were discussing, it allows you think of projects differently when you have that kind of capability.
Craig: It does and we do a little bit of stuff in Cinema 4D as well, kind of get back to the workflow stuff. Some stuff in Blender. But yeah, we mainly do the Adobe Creative Suite at some point. We’ve gone through a bunch of different things, like we’ve done some 360 video and some VR stuff, and using — it was like Autopano Giga or whatever it was, because it worked with the GoPro rig we had for the content that we did.
And that’s the other thing in terms of doing the content versus the touring and the live performance stuff. We’ve done so many random things versus like — we go out and shoot content, we buy stock, we generate content. We’ve done like the tiny planet stuff, we bought a VR rig back years ago just to make a few pieces of content with it and explore the software and we’ve done that. We’ve done crazy weird time-lapse pieces where we’ll go out and shoot time lapses. So basically we have a little time lapse rig that has a six axis head on it. So we can do crazy time-lapse shots and other things like that.
“The amount of particles that we were trying to generate to get the look that we wanted – I would not have been able to do that on a Mac, in any kind of reasonable timeframe.”
It’s just the workflows that we have to vary so greatly depending on the project and the content. And that’s part of what, to me, makes it interesting because it’s always something new and there’s always something to learn or to push. And we’re not just sitting and cutting music videos or cutting films or cutting commercials. It’s always like, we have this idea for this piece. We just pitched out an idea where I borrowed a motion capture suit from a buddy of mine. It was a neuron axis, like one of the wireless suits. So he came into the office, I put it on and danced around for a little while and did that with all of that data and put it in through — I ended up I think going through Blender, because I had some issues in Cinema to pull it into drive some particle systems in After Effects and some other stuff like that. It’s just like kind of constantly different and again, not having a computer that could keep up with that — the amount of particles that we were trying to generate to get the look that we wanted — I would not have been able to do that on a Mac, in any kind of reasonable timeframe. It just would have been awful.
Incubus live show backdrop
Christopher: I’m trying to think of the name. Real Illusion is one of the companies that we worked with, but I think there’s another one, based in Atlanta, actually. We talked about motion capture suits, and I think I met them at SIGGRAPH last year. Do you remember the name where you got the suit from or the technology?
Craig: Yeah, it was Axis Neuron that was the suit.
Christopher: Axis Neuron.
Craig: And randomly, it was a buddy of mine who lived here in town who was like — oh, it’s the professor that actually got me into all of this pretty much. He bought two of them off of their Kickstarter campaign a number of years ago for another project — it was actually not the gig that he worked on for — I want to say it was the high school in South Central, Alabama that broke segregation. So last summer they did a projection mapping project on the outside of the building to kind of commemorate 50 years of ending segregation in schools and stuff.
Christopher: Wow, cool project. So that brings us up to 2015. I was curious about when you were thinking about your new increased scope or capabilities. Have you taken on some more challenging projects? I know you mentioned 360 video. And of those projects or artists with whom you worked, you were able to do stuff that you just simply would not have been able to do before and that you’re proud of. That you kind of want to showcase or mention here.
“The job that we had pushed out in the last couple of weeks using the motion capture suit to capture the data of a dancer and to drive a bunch of particle systems and all of that. That probably wouldn’t have been something that I would have tried to pitch if we were on a Mac. It would have been way too much time to even make it worth the effort.”
Craig: Yeah. I would say that doing that — working the 360 video and the VR rig was definitely one of those that we probably would not have taken on prior to that just because it wouldn’t have made sense. I’d also brought up the job that we had pushed out in the last couple of weeks using the motion capture suit to capture the data of a dancer and to drive a bunch of particle systems and all of that. That probably wouldn’t have been something that I would have tried to pitch if we were on a Mac. If I didn’t have a decent workstation to be able to actually process that stuff, it would have been too much of a headache to even get a little test strip together to send out to the artist and the client to be like, hey, what do you guys think about this? This is something that we want to try. It would have been way too much time to even make it worth the effort.
Christopher: Yeah and that 360 degree, the immersive video one. What was the artist for whom you did that work?
Craig: That was for Jake Owen. He’s a country artist.
Christopher: Yep, okay.
Craig: He’s got a song, I believe it’s called Real Wife. So yeah, it wasn’t like full VR, but we used it more for the look where you take all of the data and you basically pull it back inside. I don’t know if you’ve seen examples of that or not, but it makes the world look like a little planet that you’re on. And as you pass stuff, it looks like the world is kind of rotating.
Christopher: Okay. Is there something like this online? Like on Jake Owens’ website or maybe just…
Craig: Yeah and that’s kind of one of the things about what we do. A lot of it doesn’t really ever end up anywhere outside of like the show. Partially because some of it just doesn’t translate well. Like even when we cut our demo reel, we looked at some of the pieces that we did that we were proud of and we were like, this just doesn’t really translate. You see a video with a bunch of black and a bunch of little rectangles and squares or circles of video content and basically no idea how it all relates to — you just see all of these little screens flashing and you’re like, oh wow, alright. I don’t really understand what that is.
Christopher: Yeah, just because it’s not part of the live experience it’s made for — you have a stage and an artist and it’s…
Craig: And it’s made to be in that environment. So when you take it out of that environment and you just put it in your normal 16×9” canvas to post on Vimeo or whatever, it kind of loses something.
Christopher: Yeah, I can see that. So speaking of which, capabilities have grown and also your skill set. Are there certain areas that you’re excited about that you want to pull into your guys’ toolbox? Or that you want to explore more as an expressive environment for the artists that you guys support?
Craig: Yeah. I mean for me, I’ve been telling myself that I’m going to become a better 3D artist for years now. It’s one of those that I know enough to get myself into trouble, and I know enough to get to a certain point that I’ve had to call a buddy like, hey. I’ve painted myself into a corner, can you help me?
Christopher: I’m stuck.
Craig: Yeah, so there’s that and then there’s been this trend in the industry that’s building more towards live generated content and live video effects, in terms of integrating it into the show. That’s something that for me personally, I’ve always been trying to push and kind of do, but it hasn’t been that feasible until recently. There were visualizers and other systems that you could rent or on the Mac side of things, I’d kind of gone through — instead of learning — ah, I just drew a blank on the name. It was the visual programming software.. And on the Jitter side of Mac’s — I think it’s Cycling 77 or Cycling 76 is the company.
Christopher: Would it be like Visual Studio in Microsoft?
Craig: Kind of. I’m not that familiar with it but — I can’t believe I can’t remember the name of the Apple stuff. It’s node-based programming for video and other things. It was kind of something that I was trying to get into years ago to try to incorporate into the live shows, but it was never quite robust enough and never quite there. It wasn’t something that was really rock solid, that you could send out to the road and feel comfortable writing this little visualizer software or this Effects for live that would do cool trail video. Like, trail the artist and have it overlay in a certain way or whatever. I could build the stuff and get it to kind of work, but it never really felt solid.
There have been a lot of advances in probably the last year or two, and Notch is the one piece of software that I’m starting to see a lot more. It’s something that I’ve been starting to play with and learn. It’s PC only and you need a pretty robust workstation to use it, but it’s basically a weird hybrid piece of software that’s a media server, 3D software, particle generators, and all of the stuff but it does it all live and in real time. Like you can do live camera tracking, you can plug in connects and get all the depth maps and all of the skeletons from it, in real time. They’ve done some really pretty amazing demos. It integrates with some of the media servers, one of which used to be called to be D3 and now they’ve changed the name to Disguise. But on some of the demos that they’ve done, I’m really impressed with using some live tracking systems and other stuff with it. The guy walking around on an LED floor with an LED wall, and it’s generating particles. They can also do real time camera tracking and camera mapping where it’ll track the camera position of data, and you can put a 3D object in the scene, and wherever the camera goes, it looks like the object is actually there. And it’s all done real time, for the most part, which is really impressive.
Christopher: Interesting. So it’s allowing everything, compositing and all of it, in a single — it’s a little bit like a game engine, from that perspective. Notch looks really interesting. I had not heard of it before. It sounds like — great, mind blowing motion graphics, visual effects and VR with a real-time WYSIWYG workflow.
Craig: Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous. The amount of time that I’ve spent in it, I’ve learned enough to know that it’s insanely powerful and it’s kind of like — okay, well, what do you want to do? It creates a very open palette, and in terms of what we do with the live performance stuff I feel like that’s where a lot of things are going to start heading. Like having the ability to generate stuff live and do stuff is amazing. A lot of times in pop music and stuff like that, everything will be time-coded, and everything will be synced. Here are the tracks, here’s the time code, and when you push go, you go. And it’s all locked up and tight and synced together. And in country and rock, you see a lot less of that. Where we end up going, okay, here’s your chorus that we built like ten seconds of tails on. Here’s your verse that we built like ten seconds of tails on. Here’s your second chorus, and then you have a guy back there hitting go whenever the band actually gets to that part of the song. So that way it all kind of still syncs and lines up, and having the ability to do some of this stuff live is — I don’t know. It kind of gets me excited about my job again, in a way. Excited for the possibilities.
Christopher: Yeah, just the idea of compositing and visual effects on the fly with live video sources. It’s visual effects in a way, but you’re highlighting something or expressing something. So it’s making art of what’s actually happening, but what’s being celebrated is what’s actually happening, the action. It’s not something that’s conceptual or something that’s live action separate from the event itself.
Andy Grammer concert backdrop video still
Craig: Yeah and that’s the big thing too with doing the live event. It’s about the events and the artists. I would love to say that, oh man, it’s about the content and the design and all of that, but it’s not. People pay money to go see the artist sing money and perform. What we do is just kind of icing on the cake, and anything that — I hate to say this, but if you go too far and you make something that’s almost too awesome or tool cool, a lot of artists don’t like that. They’ll take it back and say, I don’t know if I’m feeling that, because they don’t want the attention taken away from their music or themselves, and that makes them all — they’re not all egocentric, but they kind of are. They are an artist, they do get up in front of people on a regular basis and they captivate the audience and capture their attention. So if you distract from that, you’ve kind of defeated the purpose of what everything else in the show is there for. So we always try to incorporate live and any time you can, in my opinion, any time you can do live effects or do something with IMAG, which is what we call image magnification. Which is when you have live cameras that are there. Image magnification is just basically putting the artist up on the screen, so you can see them as the people in the back of the arena and have a good view of the artist’s face. Any time you can incorporate that and do stuff with that, I feel like it just integrates so much better in the show. So having the ability to use that imagery of the IMAG, that footage that’s being shot there in real time and use that to drive some of the effects or some of the visuals that are going on. I feel like that’s a really great integration and really kind of helps tie the show together in a way.
Christopher: Awesome. Well Craig, this is really good. I am excited to share this, and I guess the last thing to close on is if there’s any particular topic that you want to touch on. It could be about hardware. It could be something that you’ve learned about — I think the switch from Mac to PC is obviously on many people’s minds, especially for anyone who still using a Mac.
Craig: I know it’s hard because with Apple, it’s not so much a hardware thing as it is a marketing and fanboy thing, for a lack of better way to put it. There are just some diehard Apple people that are just super scared to make the switch from Mac to PC. For example, the one guy that had the trash can for a long time in my office was so hesitant to make the switch. I was like, it’s not that big of a deal. I was kind of hesitant too but once you do it, it’s really not that bad and the performance increase, the productivity increase, and everything else totally negates any hesitations or any weird little workflow things. There’s a few things that I miss about OS and some of just navigating around it, and some of the shortcuts that I think are a little more refined. And some of it is because I think I just got so used to it too. I just got so ingrained with certain things like the finder feature, for one. If he was trying to find the file, you do command and space bar and a little thing pops up. You type it in and everything pops up right away. It’s way nicer than the way Windows is set up, in my experience. But it’s such a small thing, considering the number of problems and weeks of my life that I have saved in the switch, probably within the first two years of switching to a PC. I kind of wish I had been diligent and tried to keep track of the time saved. But the productivity and the efficiency is totally worth any hesitation or any little hiccup you might have in the transition process. But the process wasn’t that bad. My coworker, he was super, super hesitant and then just couple of hours into it he was super excited. He was like, oh man. I’ve got all of these layers of video and color correction on four layers, and I’ve got a mat on mat and I don’t know, this is amazing. I can’t believe I was so reluctant to make the switch. I was like, I’ve been telling you, yeah. It’s really an amazing difference. And it’s not even on just export times, it’s the actual workflow. In the app, building stuff, looking at stuff, trying stuff. The export time is a huge timesaver and nice as well, but it’s the time inside the app, where it’s more responsive. You get just — you save so much time and you’re able to try new things where it’s like, oh. It didn’t take me five minutes to preview the scene in After Effects, it took me a minute. So I can make some tweaks and some changes and not really feel like I’m wasting my entire day just trying to make a little tweak that only I’m going to notice. I would recommend the switch to anybody.
Christopher: It’s funny, when you were talking about your coworker. I just had this image, like a born again experience. Like the light coming down from the heavens.
Craig: It really was and he’s not even that big of an Apple fanboy or whatever. He just was so used to it, had been on one for years and years and was just like — I’m like, it’s totally worth it. It was one of those where, within a couple of hours, it was like this moment of like, the heavens opened and this light shone on him and he was like, oh my goodness, my life has completely changed from this point on. I’ve got one or two other guys that I know that I’ve been poking and prodding and saying, yeah, you need to make the switch, you really, really do.
Christopher: Wow. That’s great – it sounds helpful. Well, thank you Craig. It was really a pleasure talking to you today. Have a great night and we’ll talk soon.
Craig: Alright, you too, thank you.
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